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Menino to boost water transit

Funding part of East Boston shoreline plans

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / December 6, 2011
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Imagine a breezy lunchtime jaunt from an office tower on the South Boston waterfront to a pizzeria in East Boston without braving the inside of a tunnel.

Or consider a speedy trip from Charlestown to Dorchester, regardless of the backup on the Southeast Expressway.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino is expected today to pledge $1 million a year to bolster the city’s neighborhood-to-neighborhood water transit. The initiative would be paid for in part with a $1 to $2 increase in fees paid by cruise ship passengers, a hike that would require state legislation or cooperation from the Massachusetts Port Authority.

The announcement will come as part of a broader speech this morning about the city’s East Boston shoreline. In an address to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Menino will propose a waterfront development district in the neighborhood to spur long-stalled housing and retail projects.

“He’s expected to talk about the waterfront and the harbor as engines of job creation and economic growth,’’ said Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce.

At least one advocate for the harbor greeted the proposal with enthusiasm.

“I think the mayor’s really onto something,’’ said Vivian Li, president of the Boston Harbor Association. “I think it’s a really exciting way to knit together . . . the areas where people live and the areas where they work.’’

The latest plan follows Menino’sefforts on the South Boston waterfront, which helped spark a building boom in an area his administration has dubbed the Innovation District.

The mayor is also pushing hard to lure casino developers to East Boston’s Suffolk Downs racetrack after the state passed legislation to allow casino gambling.

The $1 million pledge to enhance water transit will not be enough to launch a city-run network of ferries. Instead the money is designed to encourage another government agency - such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or a private company that operates one of the few existing water taxi services - to put more boats on the water.

“We are interested in increasing the availability, frequency, and consistency of water transit,’’ Joyce said.

But the Menino administration cannot unilaterally impose a new surcharge on the roughly 300,000 cruise ship passengers that come to Boston each year. The massive vessels dock at South Boston’s Black Falcon Cruise Terminal, operated by Massport. The agency just raised the charge for passengers by almost 30 percent on Jan. 1, from $11 to $14.

A Massport spokesman declined yesterday to discuss Menino’s proposal because the agency had not seen the specifics. If Massport refuses, the city could ask the Legislature to pass a law authorizing the new fee.

In East Boston, Menino has targeted a large swath of the waterfront where several long-planned projects have stalled. If completed, those plans would represent $582 million in private development that would create more than 1,800 housing units.

The administration’s proposal would allow the city to make upfront investments in roads and other infrastructure to lessen the cost of private construction as a way of encouraging development. The city would finance the work, in anticipation of an increase in property tax revenue when the residential buildings and commercial storefronts have been completed.

Similar mechanisms help spur the insurance giant Liberty Mutual to expand its Boston headquarters and Vertex Pharmaceuticals to construct a building in South Boston.

“I think that any effort to jump-start the East Boston waterfront development is an early Christmas gift both to the community and the city at large,’’ said John A. Nucci, a longtime resident of East Boston who served as an at-large city councilor for four years and is now vice president at Suffolk University. “The East Boston waterfront is the city’s new frontier. The view from East Boston is breathtaking. It’s a logical place for housing to succeed.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.

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